Arts & Culture

Navajo poet draws on heritage

By
Staff Writer

“The poem is in my body, so in the process of reading it I try to draw it out,” said Native American poet Sherwin Bitsui to a crowd of about 50 at the McCormack Family Theater Thursday. The poetry reading and question and answer session that followed were part of the second installment of the Writers on Writing series sponsored by the Department of Literary Arts. 

Bitsui has published two books of poetry, and his list of accolades includes the 2011 Native Arts and Cultures Foundation Artist Fellowship for Literature and a 2010 PEN Open Book Award.

“He is very in tune with international concerns and has a strong commitment to his native culture,” said Carolyn Wright, professor of literary arts, who teaches LITR 1200: “Writers on Writing” this semester. 

She said the department does not often bring writers from the Southwest and cited Bitsui’s unique origins and its influence on his work as part of the decision to invite him to speak in the series.

The Writers on Writing series and the class allow students to interact with writers whose work they have studied, rather than the department simply sponsoring unrelated writers, Wright said.

Bitsui, a Navajo of the Bitter Water Clan, began with poetry from his first work “Shapeshift.” His performance started out soft-spoken, reserved and slightly fumbled, but by the second part of his poem he grew louder with a steady cadence of harder, syllabic sounds from his native Navajo language. 

Bitsui’s poetry, which he also read in English, juxtaposes the ideas of nature and industry’s intrusion into native lands. With imagery like “gas-soaked doves” and multiple references to electrical cords, he focuses heavily on environmental factors such as gas and electricity.

“It’s more of a sensation and less about the literal interpretation of an image,” Bitsui said of his poetry. “I’m more interested in how a unit comes out and if language can house a certain energy.”

Unlike many poets, Bitsui said he primarily uses the computer to compose. 

“I like the sonic quality and how it pops up on the screen,” he said.

Bitsui cited Whitman and Ginsberg as influences in his writing, but he said he mostly draws from his Navajo tradition.

“The metaphors are very connected to nature,” he said of the influence of Navajo language.

Bitsui said he keeps a sense of both English and Navajo language in mind when he composes and has learned more about the translating process since the publication of his first book.

Instead of an anthology, Bitsui said he saw his book as a mosaic, with him trying to put the pieces together like the broken shards of pottery he saw around his house growing up. 

“I’m always political,” Bitsui said. “Everywhere I go, I’m representing something.” He cited the extermination of native languages and land and water rights issues for the Navajo and other Native American tribes in Arizona as political issues reflected in his work. 

While the book did not quite work out like the mosaic he planned, he said, he noticed a theme of flooding and fluidity in his poetry. This appears in lines like, “The waters of my clans flash-flooded / I fell from the white of its eyes.”

The next reading in the series will feature poet Forrest Gander, professor of literary arts, Feb. 23.